The Winebow White Wine Weview
Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the major wine importers and distributors host industry tastings, and an invite to such events, held in the exhibition halls of major cities like New York, sounds like a wine-lover’s wet dream– the chance not only to taste the latest wines from some of the world’s top producers, but also, in many cases, to meet the actual wine-makers themselves.
But as anybody who actually attends such tastings can testify, they’re the wine-drinker’s equivalent of a runner’s Marathon. If you haven’t already built up your stamina by tasting a lot of wine every day, you won’t last the course. And even if you have done, you will inevitably come out of the event completely wrecked, pondering your sanity for ever agreeing to take part.
This September’s two-day Winebow Vintner’s Harvest, held at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan, was a perfect case in point. There were 94 tables, representing approximately 250 wineries from every corner of the world, each pouring anywhere from 1-8 different wines, adding up to around 1000 wines on offer. Had I been able to attend for the full six hours on both days, I might just have been able to make proper notes on 10% of them.
As it was, my personal invite arrived with the wrong address, provoking a confusing cab journey up and down Sixth Avenue, several calls to 411, and a late, flustered start on a hot humid day on which I’d already dehydrated myself by running several miles. By the time I got inside, I found the room already buzzing with the sound of clinking and occasionally breaking glasses, and the rather reassuring sight of serious wine professionals pressing in on select tables to taste some of the world’s most expensive pours. Where Winebow is concerned, these are invariably from Italy, including such notable rarities as Giacosa’s Barolo Faletto and Barbaresco Santo Stefano, the 2001s of which have just been released for over $130 a bottle – wholesale. Needless to say, the few bottles that had been opened for the insiders were standing empty already, testament to the wine’s greatness – or exclusivity.
I love Italian wines, and thanks to some good friends who are fans rather than insiders I have tasted Giacosa’s Barolos from as far back as the 1970s. But Italian wine is a language unto itself, one that I am still in the process of learning, and in the limited time I had available at Winebow, I found myself returning to familiar areas: The USA, whose wines are at a far higher quality with Winebow than in your average American wine store, and France, which remains the benchmark for almost every grape I can identify by taste. There are additional advantages to staying with the tried and tested: I can converse in native tongue with the American producers, and if language is ever a problem with the French, I know enough about the country’s appellations, vintages and production techniques to engage in friendly Franglais.
What follows are some of the lessons I learned, facts I followed, and tipples I tasted. I doff my hat to those who could taste as many wines as myself – and still be standing come the end of the day. There’s a reason Robert Parker is fat, and clearly, I was in training for the wrong kind of Marathon. Talking of which…
1) GREECE IS THE WORD
Though it’s still a small player in the wine world, those who know their Greek recognize that the country’s many indigenous grapes have centuries of proven quality behind them. And while your typical sun-seeking holidaymaker might balk at the notion of grapes growing in such a torrid climate, the winemaking regions are typically at high altitude, where the temperatures are notably cooler. Greek wines come with an added incentive: they’re inexpensive. I only got to taste the whites.
GENTILINI ROBOLA 2004: The wine world is full of slight and confusing variations on a similar grape – and though the rep from Athenee Importers told me that Robola should not be confused with the Italian Ribola of which I recently raved, my Encyclopedia of Grapes ensures me they’re one and the same. Oh well: beyond dispute is that in Greece, Robolo is restricted to the island of Cephalonia, from where this particular white wine offers up vibrant acidity and a fresh light body, an ideal accompaniment to the Greek palate’s many fish dishes.
PAVLIDIS ESTATE WHITE 2004:From the north of Greece, this blend of native Assyrtiko and global Sauvignon Blanc prove that tradition and modernity can be best of friends. Two highly acidic grapes, one known for its minerality, the other for its citrus flavors, combine for a mouth-watering combination.
DOMAINE SPIROPOLOUS MANTINIA 2004:Having been operation for 135 years, and these days leaning towards purely organic wines, you would expect me to have fallen head over heels for Spiropolous’ Mantinia, a grape that has much in common with Argentina’s Torrontes. But the nose of peach and pears and honeysuckle crumbled in the palate. I had the opposite experience with the GAI’A THALEASSITIS WHITE 2004, one of Greece’s most famous wines, hailing from the volcanic island appellation of Santorini, where the Assyrtiko grapes have to work like hell as they dig deep from their perched nests into the soil, producing a wine of considerable acidity and minerality. In this case I found the nose a little odd (one of the perils of such a varied wine tasting is that contradictory flavors often bunch up against each other), but the very dry wine was intense, full and fat, a palate-choker that needs and demands food, much like a hefty Rhône white.
Talking of which…
2) RHONE WHITES ARE A GLOBAL TREND
Don’t blame me: I just champion the stuff. But Viognier is grown everywhere there’s a warm climate these days (and many places there isn’t, including New Zealand and Oregon). And more and more vignerons are experimenting with Roussanne and Marsanne, either in isolation or as (part of) a blend. Several of them even know what they’re doing.
CHÂTEAU DU TRIGNON SABLET BLANC:As I wrote in an iJamming! feature several years ago, Southern Rhône whites are usually dominated by clunky old work-horse grapes. The noble Château Trignon, whose Gigondas I buy in every good vintage, makes an exception for its Sablet, an equal split of Roussanne and Marsanne. And they must believe in its staying power: here in the fall of 2005, owner/winemaker Pascal Roux was pouring his 2001, a seriously refined, elegant, full-bodied white wine, more reminiscent of a classy Chardonnay than the typically bullish Rhône whites. It’s evidence of just how vast the Winebow tasting is that I forgot to return to this table and taste Roux’s reds, or engage in a conversation. God damn; I’ll just have to visit him at his estate some day.
CHÂTEAU DE LASCAUX: The vast Languedoc has gone from undrinkable French wine lake to new Europe market-leader in the space of only a decade, and here’s one of the reasons why. Lascaux eschews the old work-horse whites for the northern Rhône’s Marsanne, Viognier and Roussanne, along with the local grape Rolle – which Lascaux insists on calling by its Italian name Vermentino. (Is there a difference? As with Ribola/Robola, it depends on who you believe.) Both the Coteaux du Languedoc Blanc 2003 (around $15 retail) and the Pierres d’Argent 2002 (around $18, and exposed to some oak) exhibited a freshness, presumably thanks to the Vermentino/Rolle, that complimented the full body and tropical fruit aromas of the Rhône grapes.
ATREA THE CHOIR : New wineries are always happy to spend time with you, and Saracina proprietress Patricia Rock was particularly keen to hear how I compared her brand new Atrea label’s The Choir 2004 blend of 85% Roussanne, 14% Marsanne and 1% Viognier with a couple of her more experienced Californian ‘rivals’. I expressed that her wine had the floral and stone flavors true to Roussanne but a clean and crisp appeal that made it a relatively easy drink despite its 14+% alcohol content. For my troubles, I came home with a card that told me more than I needed to know: the all-organic vineyards on the Sanel Valley appellation of Mendocino were hand-picked at sunrise and whole-cluster pressed before 10am, the grapes were barrel fermented in equal parts stainless steel and neutral French yeast, and after eight months sur lie, the wine was bottled this past July. All 350 cases of it. I’d love to own one.
TREANA MER SOLEIL VINEYARD CENTRAL COAST: Californian Rhône Rangers know Treana for producing one of the finer white blends. Two-thirds Viognier and one-third Marsanne, from the cool Mer Soleil vineyard of the Santa Lucia Highlands, it retails in the mid-twenties, making it something of a luxury. But it tastes like one too, with the peach flavors of the Viognier fully coating the nose and tongue before the Marsanne’s structure eases things out at the back end. The 2001 was 14.6% alcohol, the 2002 a whopping 14.9%; unlike the Choir, these are whites that not only command your attention but demand food.
AUSTIN HOPE ROUSANNE, MER SOLEIL VINEYARD : From the same vineyard, and indeed the same winemaker, Austin Hope’s own label represents his personal vision of excellence in Rhône varietals. For the pure Roussanne, he took advantage of cool nights and let the grapes hang until mid-November 2003, at which point they were picked to produce a very ripe, honeyed wine, full of body and vigor but balanced by surprisingly bright acidity and a long finish. A truly excellent wine worthy of its $30-something price tag.
3) SAUVIGNON BLANC REMAINS A SUBLIME DRINK
In California, there’s a frustrating tendency among Californian producers to place (and effectively mask) their Sauvignon Blanc in oak, something I remarked on a few years ago when doing a big wine round-up. SARACINA of Mendocino County (the same people as produce the Atrea Choir) are half-guilty of this – that percentage of their Sauvignon Blanc which is not fermented in stainless steel drums goes into small Burgundian barrels. This shows in a 2003 wine that is fuller and richer and more tropical than its French counterparts, though to its credit it retains the minerality and citrus flavors. And it’s preferable to SPRING MOUNTAIN, who put the whole of their 2003 Sauvignon Blanc crop into oak, producing a wine that rivals a Chardonnay for rich creaminess. Perhaps its the Napa roots (of either the vines or the wine-makers) that demands this treatment I don’t believe the grape warrants it, but I’ll give Spring Mountain credit: their wine is fine-balanced and the oak not intrusive.
As for STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS, whose Cabernets are famously big broad palate-busters in the full-fronted Californian style, they present what I could cliché-ly call their feminine side with a 2004 NAPA VALLEY that is incredibly clean and clear, a delightful combination of both citrus and tropical fruits, if lacking the piercing acidity one would associate with the grape’s Loire roots. (This tasting was almost entirely free of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé for comparison, though I noted Sauvignon Blanc offerings from almost every other country in the world.) The lesson? Oak is OK, as long as the wine-maker is up to the task.
4) CHARDONNAY CAN STILL BE THE MOST CHARMING…
I dissed the grape in the opening paragraph of my opening wine feature for iJamming!, and I’ve rarely reviewed it in my Featured Wines. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like Chardonnay. I just don’t like the mass-produced, oak-chipped or green-stemmed stuff – which happens to be most of it. When it’s approached with intelligence, desire, patience, energy and experience, then it can be the finest white wine in the world. In addition, Chardonnay expresses its terroir like no other white grape.
Out in California, head to the Russian River Valley for wines that benefit from the cool coastal fog and well-drained soils. The RUSSIAN HILL WINERY’S CHARDONNAY GAIL’S ANN VINEYARD 2002 claims a similarity to the great wines of Chablis, as it should for $30 a bottle. Raised in equal parts stainless steel and oak, and going without malolactic fermentation, it has a crispness and strong presence of fruit at the welcome expense of wood, butter and cheese. I was similarly taken by the basic wine from LYNMAR, whose CHARDONNAY RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY 2004, fermented in a combination of steel and oak, was crisp and refined, carrying its 14.2% alcohol tenderly. Lynmar’s top-end ESTATE CHARDONNAY QUAIL HILL VINEYARD from the 2003 vintage was raised in barrel and had the richer floral notes to match, but the Valley’s fog helped preserve the acidity, making a fine wine built to last. (At $40 a bottle, you would hope so.)
Up in the heart of the Napa Valley meanwhile, STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS proved guilty of a particularly over the top monster with their 2003 CHARDONNAY ARCADIA VINEYARD, which you’ll be lucky to find for less than $50 a bottle. Stick to their Sauvignon Blanc.
More interesting were wines from Napa’s southern fringe of Carneros which, like the Russian River Valley, is cool enough to be planted mostly in those Burgundian classics Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Koerner ROMBAUER personally poured his winery’s 2004 CHARDONNAY CARNEROS which, 100% barrel fermented, was heavy in tropical flavors and creamy oak – but attractive for all that. Another Carneros winemaker, Bruce NEYERS, was also on hand to proudly pour his CHARDONNAY CARNEROS DISTRICT 2004 which I found to be rich in tropical flavors and but somewhat overpriced at around $30 a bottle. The NEYERS CHARDONNAY EL NOVILLERO VINEYARD 2004 is yet more expensive, but I could taste the excellence in this wine, which Neyers contributes to a gravel-clay soil and a south-east slope that catches good sun and cool breezes, making for a wine high in acidity and the Californian’s textbook notes of bread and butter. You get a higher quality-price-ratio from Steve Macrostie’s similarly defined but better-priced wines. The MACROSTIE CHARDONNAY CARNEROS has been a fave round my way for 15 years or more, and the 2004 (wholesaling for $15) is full of ripe apples and citrus with the oak hiding quietly in the background – a big, rich wine that is well-focused and unquestionably sophisticated. The MACROSTIE CHARDONNAY WILDCAT MOUNTAIN VINEYARD 2003 claims to represent “Carneros at its coolest and most challenging” but while the wine was unquestionably fine, with a wide array of flavors and the ability to develop yet more of them in bottle, I come down in favor of both Neyers and MacRostie’s basic bottlings. Single vineyards are not always all they’re cracked up to be.
One of these days I will travel to Burgundy to experience that region’s terroir for myself. In the meantime, I have these industry tastings at which to learn how a range of soils can make such a stunning difference to grapes grown within a few miles. The wines from the esteemed negoçiant VERGET are particularly enlightening in this regard. A simple and inexpensive MÂCON-VILLAGES 2004 offered up stream-clean flavors of tart apples and citrus, with just enough body to hold the acidity in place, a credit to a generally maligned appellation. A blend of grapes from the elite Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet communes, entitled BOURGOGNE TERROIRS DE COTE D’OR, also from 2004, was partly oaked but still predominantly stainless steel, and as such the wine was still more about freshness than richness. A POUILLY FUISSÉ 2004, the most expensive wine in the portfolio (but still under $18 a bottle wholesale) exhibited the wide range of textures – intensity and delicacy stepping side by side – that makes this famous but often complacent commune my mother’s favorite.
But the winning wine by far was the VERGET ST. VERAN TERROIR DE DAVAYE 2004. Davaye is a St. Veran commune just north of Pouilly-Fuissé, with calcerous soil from which these 30-40 year old vines yield grapes that are fermented in a delicate mix of stainless steel, foudré and barrel. A Chardonnay made with all the qualities I mentioned up top, the Davaye danced a lengthy ballet on my tongue, so invigorating that I could barely bring myself to swallow. This is Chardonnay as it should be – light-footed, fresh-faced, full-bodied, perfumed, fruity, saucy, ripe, rich and refined. Even better, it’s available in good quantities, and at a sensible price – $17 wholesale should see a $25 price-point in the stores. It was one of the few wines I came across all day that stopped me in my tracks – and I was not alone in that reaction. This, I should conclude, is why we work our way through so much mediocrity – for a moment of such epiphany.